What do we do in a world without football?
Scottish Review, March 18th 2020
What do we do we in this strange world, facing so many unexpected challenges – including being without football? For some this will be a welcome respite but others will be bereft and lost in how they fill their time and understand life, but given the reach of the game across the globe this is no arcane and marginal matter.
The temporary cancellation of all football matches – in England until April 4th for now and in Scotland until further notice – raises huge issues including practical questions such as what happens with incomplete seasons across Europe and the world, and what is the future for a sport which has morphed into an extension of a not very attractive arm of unsustainable global capitalism?
Then there is football and the media. More than 25 years ago ‘The Scotsman’ under Lesley Riddoch’s tutelage produced an issue called ‘The Scotswoman’ which only included contributions from women. This daring move led me to think what the Scottish media – print, TV, radio – would do without football for more than a single day but for at least one week. It would – if they were not allowed to comment on the absence of football as a story – take us somewhere completely different as a society and tell us things about ourselves we might not know. Well, we might be about to find out.
The coronavirus pandemic has already reshaped much of public life and society at least temporarily and will more than likely have a fundamental, permanent impact. It will affect not just daily lives and routines but government, economy and society; how we organise and think about these concepts; and the norms and values which underpin them.
All sport has been affected not just football but golf, tennis, rugby, even Formula One, although the attitude and delay of football authorities caused Wayne Rooney, ex-Manchester United and now Derby County, to say that footballers were being treated by authorities as ‘guinea pigs’.
Practical consequences flow from this stoppage in Scotland and England. What happens to the incomplete domestic league titles and cups, the UEFA Champions League and Europa League, and the staging of Euro 2020? The last of these was to be played this summer across twelve countries at the same time – maximising both the carbon footprint and the cost to fans.
In England, Liverpool have played 29 games (from an intended 38) and are 25 points clear and two games away from winning their first title in 30 years. In Scotland Celtic are on 30 games in the league (out of 38) and 13 points clear, having played a game more than Rangers and closing in on the elixir of ‘nine in a row’ (hence equalling the Scottish record of Celtic under Stein and Rangers in the 1990s).
Hearts are bottom of the Scottish Premier, four points adrift and with eight games left staring relegation and the loss of millions in the face. Dundee United, my team, are 14 points clear at the top of the Championship and look a dead cert for winning the title and automatic promotion. All of this has been at least temporarily frozen in aspic.
There are only three real options available for domestic football. First, is to award league titles and decide relegation based on positions now. Second, to play out the season in a flurry of activity in summer or early autumn, perhaps pushing back the start of the new season. The final option is to declare the entire season null and void and not award any trophies not already decided.
Underlying all these stances is the issue of prize monies for league positions, titles and cups which makes the null and void position unlikely. The last time a football season was abandoned in Scotland and England was 1939-40 with the onset of the Second World War. This was a very different world of football, less wrapped up in money and big business, and the season had only just begun – five games for the Scottish league, three in England, while Nazi Germany continued throughout the war with their domestic league until 1945.
Today is a different world with questions about not just prize monies but the flow of TV monies to the game from BT Sport and SKY Sports which is not only an astronomical amount, but for some of the smaller clubs, an absolute lifeline and difference between survival and closure. All of these factors mean that the null and void option is the least practical, while the first has the potential for multiple legal actions say if Hearts were relegated based on their current position.
Football fortunately is not just about winning and monies. For some of the smaller clubs in Scotland there is a question over whether they will survive if this crisis goes beyond a couple of months, such is their size and margins. Scotland has a population of five million people and 42 senior clubs, whereas England has a population of 56 million and 92 senior clubs. The point being that some of our smaller clubs – the likes of Stenhousemuir, Cowdenbeath, Brechin City, Albion Rovers – are very small in their followings and takings.
Parts of our game has nothing but condescension and contempt for this world; here is David Low, football financial analyst speaking this week: ‘There are 42 clubs in the SPFL. You have the never-have-been-and-never-will-be clubs … I’m talking about Albion Rovers or Stranraer … which are essentially amateur clubs.’
This wilfully ignores the emotional aspect and role of football – for no matter how small say Brechin City might be in size they play an important, even totemic role in their Angus town. Brechin may be bottom in Scotland’s fourth tier at the moment, but they have a proud history, local rivalry with the equally evocative Forfar Athletic, and a majestic setting for their small stadium, Glebe Park (capacity 4,083), next to a country park, and with a hedge running along one side of the ground.
I know this from personal experience having attended matches at all 42 senior grounds which then took me into the world of junior football. Brechin, sitting where they are, might be one of the beneficiaries of the current disruption as they were facing the prospect of a play-off to retain their league membership against the winners of the Highland and Lowland league play-off, which rumour has it may be cancelled.
Football to many is more than a game. It is an intrinsic part of their life. It gives a whole cycle of watching and following games, meeting up with friends, and connection, conversation, shared memories and meanings, and even a sense of ritual. One aspect of this is the inter-generational stories it provides mostly but not exclusively for men – and between sons, fathers and grandfathers.
In a society where we have seen dramatic change from heavy industry to a service-led economy and the transformation of work and with it what it means to be a man, football is one of the few potent connections across the generations for many men. It provides collective histories, tales of triumph and disaster, the latter sometimes on the football field and sometimes real life and death disasters (Munich 1958; Ibrox 1971), alongside evocations of past legends.
The place of football has transformed in recent decades. A key moment globally was the creation of the English Premier in 1992-93, a breakaway league by the top 20 clubs to keep more of the money for themselves, following the script of the Thatcherite ‘winner takes all’ philosophy. This is the story of the English game over the last 25 years plus: a revolution funded first by the largesse of SKY Sports and now BT Sport.
This transformation has dramatically altered the game. Virtually no players commit to a club for their whole senior career and become synonymous with not just that club but a specific era. Similarly, the link between a team’s squad and the locale they are based in is now spurious and non-existent. The old tradition exemplified by Celtic’s famous 1967 European Cup winning team all coming from within a couple of miles radius of each other in the East End of Glasgow is a long distant echo from another age.
Football at the top is awash with money and bereft of ethics. Manchester City have just been fined for ‘serious breaches’ of UEFA financial regulations and banned from the European Champions League for two years. The aforementioned English Premier which is every week touted as the greatest league in the world is a sad place when it comes to ownership – with many of the clubs foreign owned.
The absence of football will leave a chasm in the lives of some. It raises the question of whether people will realise how much they love and miss the game and embrace it even more when it returns. Mark Perryman, co-founder of ‘Philosophy Football’ asks: ‘Will the interest return? The only thing we can be certain is after the nightmare passes things won’t be the same again, but how? Economically, depending how long it lasts there could be umpteen clubs bust. Even the big clubs won’t be able to afford the sky-high wages.’
When football was last put into cold storage from 1939-45, after it returned in 1946-47 it was marked by years of huge attendances (as was entertainment such as cinema which had continued during the war). This was true of post-war Scotland which enjoyed a golden era of massive crowds. What marked this era as different from others before and since was its ultra-competition – with Hearts, Hibs, Aberdeen, Dundee and Kilmarnock all winning the main league, and teams such as East Fife having unprecedented success winning three League Cups.
This crisis has underlined the degree to which large sections of the media are filled with football. In the first days there was much media speculation on logistical issues such as games and tournaments suspended, how decisions would be made domestically and what advice UEFA would give. But talking about football that isn’t taking place can only last so long.
Mark Perryman comments: ‘What strikes me is this great gaping hole, which you don’t have to be much of a fan, or even at all, to be affected by. Empty sports pages, nothing to bet on, blank screens in pubs, not having to avoid match day crowds in public transport, sports TV and radio channels with nothing to cover.’ All of this shows the extent of what Perryman calls ‘the sportification of our culture’.
Football in recent years has become the equivalent of a secular religion; a set of false prophets and gods who millions of supporters follow and pay homage to if they deliver on their promises. Is there any chance of some kind of fundamental reset and of football becoming again just another game? The odds on this look slim. There is an entire industry of hangers-on and vested interests whose livelihoods are based on the maintenance of football as big business.
But life is not just about football and if the coronavirus produces an economic and social upheaval it will also open the opportunity to rethink the fundamental tenets of society, economy and capitalism, and with it of football, as with other sports. Wouldn’t it be great if we could actually get football back as a sport, something played with honour and dignity, and which fans could really identify with and felt they owned?